-- Nobody took the debate seriously, not at the start, anyway. The last letter of MVP, after all, stands for "Player," as in someone who actually takes part in the game.
But go ahead, try and name someone – anyone – more valuable to his team than Peyton Manning. He's already the league's only four-time MVP.
"Look, we all know who would win if we took a poll right now. Aaron Rodgers would absolutely kill it. But if the Colts end up going the way they're headed," said Mike Dunphy, publisher and editor-in-chief of NFL Magazine, "the more it proves that Peyton really is the franchise."
While the topic began simmering in chat rooms and on blogs shortly after Indianapolis staggered out of the gate to begin the regular season – even the erudite New Yorker weighed in this week – the premiere issue of the league's magazine jumps in with both feet.
Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who's at the center of a different QB controversy, is featured on the cover. But the story that's likely to kick up the biggest fuss is inside, titled: "Our Man Manning. Without even playing a down, Peyton's proven he's the NFL MVP," in which writer Thomas George calls Manning "the ghost of the entire NFL season. The league misses him but has marched on without him. The Colts, however, minus him, have hobbled to agonizing, toe-curling places."
Already 0-12 and facing games against Baltimore this weekend and then three division opponents who've already beaten the Colts by a combined 78-20, few of Manning's teammates would quibble.
"It's an interesting decision," said Colts linebacker Gary Brackett, among a handful of players attending a Tuesday night fundraiser in Indianapolis to benefit teammate Antoine Bethea's "Safe Coverage Foundation."
Like them, Brackett considers the argument a mixed blessing. Since Manning was sidelined with a neck injury, Brackett and eight other starters are among the 24 players who have missed at least one game, and several have been lost for the season. All of those absences have no doubt hobbled Indy's performance, but none compares to the loss of Manning – on both sides of the ball. Over the previous dozen seasons, with Manning calling the shots on offense, the Colts ranked first in points, passing yards and total yards per game; this year, in those same categories, they rank 29th, 29th and tied for 26th, respectively. The defense, meanwhile, ranks dead last in points allowed and has been forced to spend more time on the field than any other unit. Opponents know the changes in those stats are no coincidence.
"Those people that were arguing that he should be the MVP probably have a good argument," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "When he's in there, they're so good on offense and obviously when you get the lead, their defense is built for speed and pass rush. When they have the lead, that defense is real hard to deal with."
The fast-fading season led to the firing last week of defensive coordinator Larry Coyer and the promotion of Dan Orlovsky from backup quarterback to starter. But neither move made an immediate difference in the Colts' fortunes – they fell behind 31-3 to the Patriots before rallying to make the game close – and may not mean much in the long term.
Much of the criticism early on was directed at owner Jim Irsay and front-office execs Bill Polian and his son, Chris, for not having a Plan B when news of Manning's neck problems surfaced in May. The severity of the injury didn't become apparent until early September – shortly after the Colts signed Manning, 35, to the richest contract in NFL history – and after scrambling to find a replacement, the best alternative they could muster was coaxing Kerry Collins out of retirement.
The 38-year-old quarterback was knocked out of a game in late September with a concussion. Still experiencing symptoms at the end of October, Collins went on injured reserve and retired again last month. He's since moved back to his cattle ranch in North Carolina and started writing country-music songs, If he was still in Indy, Collins would likely be singing the blues.
"It didn't work out, and I feel the pain that Colts fans are feeling right now. I wish I could have helped more. But I'm glad I tried," he told the New York Times recently. But Collins didn't sound surprised that backup QB Curtis Painter, and most recently Orlovsky, were struggling to fill Manning's shoes.
"That offense has evolved around a special guy," Collins said. "Peyton has a football IQ that is off the charts and a physical gift as well. There is no way to go in there and run the offense like he does."
On the other hand, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and former Super Bowl winning-QB Kurt Warner are among a growing chorus arguing that Green Bay's Rodgers might be orchestrating the best season ever. The Packers are unbeaten and Rogers' completion rate, touchdown-to-interception ratio and quarterback rating are all off the charts. His performance, ultimately, could be the strongest argument against naming Manning on any ballots, although there are no guidelines for what constitutes an MVP and voters are free to choose the Colts' QB.
"Is he really the MVP?" NFL Magazine's Dunphy asked. "Everybody has an opinion on that, and this is ours. We expect to hear about it from fans, so I guess you could say the bottom line is, bring it on."